Science Says You Need A Vacation — Here's Why

Photo by Kristen Curette Hines

More than half of Americans did not use all of their allotted vacation days last year. That adds up to 705 million days that should have been spent relaxing on a beach (or, at the very least, not reading emails) but instead were spent at the office.

Maybe you think you have too much work to possibly squeeze in enough time away, or you think your co-workers might judge you. Whatever the reason, you are losing more than just well-deserved days off by skimping on vacation—you may actually be cutting years off your life: A new study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, found that not taking enough vacation time can negatively affect sleep patterns, stress levels, and, most importantly, longevity.

To find this out, researchers re-examined information from the Helsinki Businessmen Study, a cardiovascular disease prevention study, that looked at 1,222 middle-aged male executives with heart disease risk factors. The study had found that lifestyle changes including quitting smoking, increasing physical activity, eating a healthful diet, and maintaining a healthy weight decreased cardiovascular disease risk by 46 percent during the trial period. Surprisingly, many of these benefits seemed to be negated by the 15-year follow-up. Even though the men were now eating better, exercising, and otherwise leading a healthy lifestyle, more deaths were reported in the intervention group than the control group.

In a new 40-year follow-up analysis, researchers think they may have pinpointed one of the reasons for this discrepancy: vacation time.

Men in the intervention group who took less than three weeks of annual vacation had a 37 percent greater risk of dying during the follow-up period than men who took more vacation time. Also, men who took shorter vacations were found to work more and sleep less, demonstrating an overall more stressful lifestyle. Researchers believe these elevated stress levels may be to blame for the increased risk of death, outweighing the benefits of physical activity and diet. They concluded that vacation time can be a valuable, yet underutilized, form of stress relief.

This study highlights just how important it is to tackle health from a 360-degree perspective. Hitting the gym and eating your greens can't always make up for poor stress management. So prioritize your PTO if you have it; it could save your life.

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